Staff Photo: John Bohn — Mill Creek pitcher Heather Felt (11) pitches to a Grayson hitter during a playoff softball game played last Thursday.
For Mill Creek softball, Thursday's trip down I-85 to Columbus is a road often traveled.
Last year's state runner-up has made the final eight in Georgia's high classification five out of the past seven seasons, winning state in 2008. But even a year removed from a deep playoff run, this is a different Hawks team that opens play Thursday against Kennesaw Mountain. Last year's team graduated five seniors, including four college softball players, the team's top two pitchers weren't with the program a year ago, including one of three freshmen players on the varsity team.
Yet, here they are again on the road south.
"That's one of our goals (getting to Columbus)," Mill Creek head coach Roger Parham said. "For a totally new group I am very, very proud of them."
Parham considers this group new, but he quickly walked back the "totally." There are four members of this Hawks' team who were a part of the 2011 run.
Junior third baseman Morgan Bell, second baseman Mackenzie Fagioli, shortstop Lauren Bennett and center fielder Taylor Rogers all played a part last season. Rogers missed the state tournament run with an injury and pitched the first half of the season and Fagioli played left field, a reshuffling of even the experienced group of Hawks.
"(Our experience) is up the middle of the ballpark," Parham said. "That is not just by chance. We have it set up that way. There is a reason we have our experienced people where we are going to get the action."
That reason? A pair of pitchers who didn't throw an inning of high school varsity softball last season.
Power pitcher junior Heather Felt transferred to Mill Creek over the summer and didn't play softball a season ago and Kaitlyn Howell was in eighth grade.
"She impressed us in the summer workouts coming in," Parham said of Howell. "She does a great job of creating tempo and throwing her first pitch for a strike and pitching to contact.
"She understands her limitations, but she understands if she spots the ball and pitches to contact, for the most part, we are going to catch it."
The most experienced pitcher, senior Jessica Grimes, makes her impact in relief.
But with a solid defense, anchored by Rogers in center, the Hawks battled through the early rounds of the state tournament with series wins over North Forsyth and a Game 3 victory over Grayson. In that game, Rogers, a slap hitter, drove a ball to right center for a triple.
"She has really improved her game and stepped up," Parham said.
The Hawks play Thursday evening and will board their charter bus that morning, take some batting practice at Northside Columbus before facing the same Kennesaw Mountain team that beat them earlier this season.
"Anytime you get the opportunity to go to Columbus, regardless if it's a team that's experienced or inexperienced, you have to keep it in perspective," Parham said. "The tournament is not won the first day, nor is it lost."
The Hawks know this from last year's run through the loser's bracket.
"You are just looking to get to Saturday," Parham said. "Let's do our best to get to Saturday and once you get to Saturday you just have to throw your chips in and say you're all-in."